The quality of mercy is not strained, wrote Shakespeare in a poem from The Merchant Of Venice. We have all heard the poem but have rarely really considered it. It is one of those writings that is mentioned so often it is just background noise, we no longer pay much attention to it, but when we do, it can be transformative.
Mercy, Shakespeare writes, drops as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed, it blesses the person who gives and the person that takes. Mercy is a simple thing to praise, a tough thing to practice.
At this point in our culture, we are nearly drowning in anger and argument and worry, and the author Anne Lammott believes that the idea of mercy may be our best hope and only hope for transforming our troubled lives. Lamott has just published a book called Hallelujah Anyway, Rediscovering Mercy.
During the height of the presidential election last Fall, Lamott suddenly realized that the idea of mercy had the power to change her life and the world beyond. Mercy, she wrote, is the way home, the way to peace, the way to all of the good things we stand for.
If the past year shows anything, it is that we have forgotten to show mercy to ourselves or to one another. We simply yell and rage and finger-point and shake our heads in anger, but not in understanding.
Mercy is, in fact, the way to peace and healing. To have a merciful heart means achieving a state of grace so powerful that even if somebody is wrong or has wronged us, we get that they have suffered too, their battles may be worse than ours. In our culture, we are challenged in this practice every day.
A friend of mine voted for Donald Trump and called me up to tell me, he wanted to assure me he was not a racist or bigot or sexist. His call touched me. I understand how much you have suffered, I said, you don't need to explain yourself to me. I am not pure enough to judge anyone.
We have remained friends, and this has helped me to avoid the anger and argument that is raging all around me.
I understand that the spiritual life is all about the journey, it is not about perfection. I am no saint, and will never be a saint. I understand that in this search, I will fail more often than not, I am damaged and wounded and angry in more ways than I can describe.
For me, the pursuit of a spiritual life is about stepping into the beams of light that lift the heart, brighten the soul and leave me with hope. All around, there is darkness, frustrations, disappointments, anger.
It is not necessary that I become an angel, only a human being who wants to be better and reach my highest human potential. That brings me to mercy.
There is hardly an hour that someone doesn't do something or say something or write something that offends and angers me Every time, I have a choice about how to respond. Can I be merciful to myself and others, or will I fail in this and be drawn into anger and conflict? Will I get sour and grim?
Sometimes I succeed, more than not I fail. Just the other day, I got a message from a woman who was outraged that I threw the body of a dead chicken into the woods and wrote about it in one of my books. I replied, telling her to mind her own business, I said I would rather feed the wild animals in the forest than the maggots and worms in the ground. It felt good and righteous to send that message.
I could not feel any mercy towards her. I could not grasp that she might have suffered. I just can't always do it, and I doubt I will ever be merciful to everyone at all times.
I'm not sure I have ever undertaken a more difficult and frustrating challenge that bringing mercy into my mind and life. Yet I see the power of Lamott's plea. Mercy is what is missing in our culture, it is absent from the decisions and deliberations of our leaders, lost in the way in which we argue with one another.
Mercy is the thing we are often told of but never taught. Mercy is the thing that Jesus preached and lived. The absence of mercy causes immense suffering and threatens us as much as any tyrant with a missile.
Long before Lamotte's book, I have been exploring this idea of mercy, more and more trying to practice it. But I love her writing and her honest spirituality.
Someone wrote me that I was a cruel and hypocritical killer of animals for putting down a dog. I closed my eyes and imagined this person suffering through the loss and death of dogs, and I wrote her that I was sorry for her anger and her pain, I wished her healing and comfort. I never heard back, but I felt I had moved forward in my own humanty.
A distant cousin called to beg me to attend a family re-union and I recoiled, I have avoided my family my whole adult life, I simply cannot revisit those days and have accepted that failure and limitation. But I listened to this cousin and I grasped that she was getting older and nearing the end of her life and simply wanted to reconnect with the family that had been so important to her, and so different from my experience.
I told her to come and see me.
"I just felt just to point out to people how merciful they are or used to be and can be again and the beauty of living from your merciful heart instead of your ticker-tape brain – judgemental brain – is the way home," writes Lamott. "It's the way to peace, the way to feel safe and connected. It's all the things we long for."
I do long for mercy. On this day, I read the quotes of Christ about mercy. Christ is so often evoked in our political system, yet it is bewildering to me how much of his true message has been lost. He often seems more an idea to be exploited than a God to follow. And I am not a Christian, but that seems very sad to me.
God, Christ preached, "has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted. To proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners. To confront all who mourn." Can you imagine any one of our political leaders coming to us to continue that work? It is almost a sign of nobility to ignore the poor and turn away the suffering.
I'm reading Lamott's book and I hope to write more about it. I is a big idea, and I don't need politicians to do it. This is an idea that one can do at home, and it's free.
I can practice it every day. I can show mercy to those who disagree with me, I have learned that many people who disagree with me have suffered greatly, their pleas for help ignored. I can show mercy for the suffering of the refugees and immigrants, many of whom are suffering and dying from a lack of mercy.
I can practice mercy with the residents of the Mansion, many of whom are brokenhearted and alone. It is transformative to show mercy. I believe it is the great hope for the world. And I can practice extreme mercy for me.
I believe mercy is also viral, and can spread like a wildfire, because it feels so much more beautiful and nourishing that anger and resentment.
Mercy is the better place for me to get to.